As mentioned, I've started reading Susan Vreeland's Life Studies: Stories. If the first story is a taste of what's to come later, I think I'm going to enjoy this collection very much. The book is divided into three sections--Then, Interlude and Now. I think Vreeland will be writing primarily about the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and I'll be curious to see which artists pop up in the stories. As a painting by Modigliani graces the cover, I hope she writes about him as well, as he is a favorite painter of mine. To set the tone, Vreeland begins the collection with a quote by John Berger from Ways of Seeing:
"The real question is: To whom does the meaning of the art of the past properly belong? To those who can apply it to their own lives, or to a cultural hierarchy of relic specialists?"
I've not read anything by John Berger, though I have some of his criticism and a novel as well. All of a sudden his work sounds very interesting (and pertinent to other things I'm reading), so I'll have to dig out his books. I like the idea of art as something that can be applied to anyone's life. I do think that art can be appreciated by people of all ages and backgrounds, and I don't think that it's necessary to be a scholar or a specialist to be able to find pleasure in a painting or sculpture or other work of art. Of course as with a book, a deeper appreciation or understanding might come with more education. In any case I'll be reading these stories with that quote in mind and will see if and how the stories answer the questions Berger poses.
"Mimi with a Watering Can" is set in Paris, 1876. I think that art (the process of doing/creating or even experiencing it as a spectator so to speak) can have healing qualities to it. That's what Jérôme will discover in this story. Middle aged and depressed he wants only to stay in his dressing gown and read Baudelaire and Verlaine all day and not go to his sister's garden party.
"He did not want to mix cordially with her motley Montmartre neighbors, did not want to sit on a crumbling stone wall among buzzing insects in her half-wild yard drinking that sharp piccolo from the last scraggly Montmartre vineyard, making trivial conversation with some tinsmith or shoemaker or painter Claire might have invited."
His wife Élise, however, talks him into going. They'll take their daughter, Mimi, and through the course of the evening and his interaction with the other guests, particularly with Auguste Renoir, he'll come to see life differently. He sees his daughter Mimi and her watering can through Renoir's artistic eyes, and it inspires him.
"He felt a faint beating inside him, like hummingbird's wings against his chest. He sat up straighter and slapped the arm of the chair. It's not too late, he thought. He could learn. Not painting, but something that would be his. That's what he needed. Nothing grand, just something that would have taste and expression and love."
Vreeland's descriptions are wonderfully evocative. So it should be when talking about art. She enters the Renoir's painting, "Girl with a Watering Can" through the backdoor. It wasn't until little Mimi is given a watering can as a cure for boredom that I began to visualize the painting in front of me just as Renoir did in the story. I thought it was all really nicely done, and I can't wait to read the rest of the stories in the collection.
You can check out Susan Vreeland's website here. There's all sorts of information about the book, and I'll be checking back as I make my way through the stories. I'll leave you with a quote about Vreeland's inspiration for the book:
"These stories were written before, between and after my three novels about paintings and painters. I thought of them as studies of the lives surrounding the painters.
Just as painters do studies of details from life, that is, from live models, in the process of working up a large and complex canvas, so were these stories my studies of details of lives that, taken together as the large canvas of a story collection, might show the complexities and richness of people whose lives are lived close to art."